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Pro Vercelli: Time of the Season, Part III

The home leg of our promotion playoff final was at the Silvio Piola on June 24th. Messi was still with Cameroon, but I felt relatively confident: after all, we were as hard to beat at home as Portosummaga was, and our attacking ability was almost on par with theirs. I told the team to be aggressive, hurled the fullbacks forward, and squeezed the defensive line up the field. What followed was one of those 20-minute stretches that sometimes come along in this game in which your heart is ripped out, given back to you, ripped out again, offered for ransom, and finally reacquired just when you’ve decided that maybe you were better off without it.

We created a lot of reasonably good chances, but Ibáñez was still in hibernate mode and Neri wasn’t even playing; he’d “injured himself” in training, forcing me to give our 21-year-old third-choice striker Lorenzo his first-ever start. On the stroke of halftime, Landry Akassou decided to put any lingering doubt about his loyalties to rest by shredding through my defense, leaving Carlo Saba for dead, and almost mockingly stringing Ficarelli along next to him until he could dink in a short cross for Caputo. 1-0 Portosummaga.

I got in the team’s face at halftime and told them they were letting themselves down. This was no time to give in to emotional insecurities. Prudence dictated pulling the formation back a little and guarding against a second goal, but we didn’t have time for prudence. I told them to stay aggressive.

The next 40 minutes flew by as they can only when you’re losing and your season is on the line. We created chances and did nothing with them; we narrowly kept them from scoring on the occasional counterattack. Around the 80th minute, when the match seemed utterly over, I started writing a post in my head about our valiant near-miss—yet another one in a two-season stretch that had been full of them: missing the playoff by two points last season, losing the title on the last day of the season this year. Then, in the 86th minute, just as I was finishing the second paragraph…well, when I introduced Ewan Vignau, I told you to remember the name:

1-1. We were going to extra time.

Here was the problem: as I mentioned before, I didn’t know what the tie-breaker was. If the score stayed level, I didn’t know if we’d be going to penalties, checking away goals, or what. It crossed my mind that I should ask someone, or even check myself. But at 1-1, it wouldn’t matter, since an away-goals rule wouldn’t come into effect when both legs finished one-all. And I intended to keep it from mattering by taking the lead. I told the players to give everything they had for the fans—we’d sold out the Silvio Piola for the first time in years—and exhausted as they were, to keep on pressing forward.

In the 94th minute, disaster struck again: their midfielder Cangini sent a through ball to a Tresoldi in the box, who jabbed it past van Dijk into the net.

Wait a second…was he as offside as he looked? You be the judge:

Okay, I’ll be the judge: it wasn’t as bad as it first looked, but he was still offside. The flag stayed down, however. 2-1 Portosummaga, and you can imagine my state of mind at this point. Our only hope now was to try to get an equalizer and pray that the tiebreaker was penalties. If it was away goals, it was already too late for us.

From the beginning, this was a nasty, physical game, and it got worse as it went along. Yellow cards were flying thick and fast. Our players didn’t react well to the offside goal being allowed to stand, and a couple of minutes after it, Marco Antonelli, who’d already been booked once, drew a straight red card for a rash, scything challenge on Leandro. We were down to 10 men, and whatever hope we had left was slipping away.

We crossed the halfway point in extra time, and the minutes started to fly by. The game was getting away; our players were outmanned and exhausted, and couldn’t make anything happen. But I’d used up all my substitutions, made every tactical adjustment I could think of, and couldn’t do anything now but watch and sweat.

In the 115th minute, Saba got the ball on the left wing. He sent in a tired cross that was cleared away by Parolini. Miguel José recovered possession on the right side of the box. He centered the ball, which bounced off Baldini, leading to a momentary scramble. Then Alessandro Baldini—who, as you’ll recall, salvaged the away leg of this tie by scoring a late equalizer at Portosummaga—stuck out his leg at just the right moment and knocked the ball, off the underside of the crossbar, into the goal.

Pandemonium at the Silvio Piola. We were level! The owner was high-fiving with fans. The guys from the Vercelli Soccer Express were hugging in the press box. On the sidelines, all I could do was hope that when the match ended, we’d be taken to penalties. If we weren’t, I thought, the comeback wouldn’t mean anything, because Portosummaga would be promoted on away goals, and we’d be stuck in Serie C1 for another season.

The match ended…and we went straight to the team talk. Despondent, I gave the team a sympathetic speech, told them how proud I was of their season, and sent them home. I couldn’t believe we’d come so close only to lose out again. Okay, we’d improved every season I’d been at the club, and we’d already been promoted once. There were reasons to be encouraged. But at the moment, none of them seemed very important.

With a sigh, I sat down to collect my thoughts before I went out to face the press. I could hardly bear to think of the look on poor old Riccardo Nicastro’s face. I fired up my email, just to waste a few more seconds. And what did I find in my inbox?

The tiebreaker was league position! We’d finished third in the league and Portosummaga had finished fifth, so we were through to Serie B after all!

I couldn’t even think about what we’d be facing next year or how to put this in perspective. (Can a draw against Portosummaga count as one of the greatest days in the history of a club that’s won seven Italian championships?) All I knew was that I needed to get a room in a restaurant and start opening crates of champagne. We’d made it to the second division of Italian football for the first time since the late 1940s. Whatever the future might hold—and I was fully aware that we weren’t ready for the teams we’d be facing next season; we were going to have a relegation fight on our hands—that was something to celebrate.

Luca Dori crushed the Budweiser can and threw it at the tractor calendar on the wall of his office. In all his time at Biellese, he’d never known fury like this. “Damn it, Mauro!” he cried to his assistant manager. “I’ll be the laughingstock of Piedmont!”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Mauro coolly. “Why don’t we make a little phone call? I know someone who could tell us all kinds of secrets about what goes on at Pro Vercelli.”

“But who knows secrets like that?” Luca Dori seethed, apoplectic with anger and bewilderment.

“Walter Colombo,” said Mauro with a smile. “Why, Walter Colombo, of course.”

Song clips: Ann Peebles, “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down”; T. Rex, “Chrome Sitar”; Prokofiev, “Dance of the Knights,” from Romeo and Juliet; Muse, “Supermassive Black Hole”; Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, “Underwater (You and Me)”

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Pro Vercelli: Time of the Season, Part III

by Brian Phillips · February 13, 2009

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